I was 10 years old when a total stranger checked my head for horns.
I was perusing books at my local library when a 50-something white woman with mouse brown hair and small eyes walked right up to me, put her hand on my head, and felt around my little scalp.
For a moment, I was frozen. Then I took a giant leap away from her, not knowing what to do or say, figuring maybe she thought I was some other kid, the same way when I was younger I had once run to hug the wrong pair of grown-up legs and was mortified to look up and see Not My Mom.
“It’s all right,” the woman said, holding up her hands, like she meant no harm. “One of the librarians told me you were Jewish, and I just wanted to see if your horns had come in yet.”
The whole bizarre incident is burned in my brain, seared in by those probing fingers on my scalp. Before that moment, I had never heard the old anti-Semitic trope about Jews having horns
(for the record, and I hate that I have to say this, but just in case: WE DON’T HAVE HORNS). I wish I could also say it was the first time in my life I’d experienced anti-Semitism, but that would be inaccurate.
When I was 8, my best friend told me, sobbing, that she prayed for me every night because she knew when she went to Heaven, I wouldn’t be there, I would be burning in hell with all the other Jews and other sinners. All of us “others,” who weren’t like her– we were doomed.
When I was 6 or 7, my Bubbe explained to me that her parents and five of her eight siblings were killed by bad men called Nazis who hated Jewish people, and also hated lots of other people who weren’t like the Nazis, and thought we should all be dead.
“But you and me, we’re still here,” she added. “We’re alive. You see? They didn’t get us all.”
As I watched the footage of the Unite the Right march on Charlottesville
, a fear gripped me. But it wasn’t a new fear. It was an old, familiar fear. A fear shaped for some of us by Kristallnacht
and shattered windows, and others by Jim Crow
and flaming crosses. Minorities know this hatred isn’t something new.
People of color feel it even more deeply, in part because they cannot hide from those hateful eyes. Many Jews in America (not all; let’s not forget, not all Jews are white) can pass for white, and that’s a privilege. Even among minorities, some of us have had more or less access to opportunity, more or less ability to choose how visible our “otherness” is, more or less direct experience with dangerous xenophobia.
But we know. We’ve always known.
Jews, women, POC, indigenous people, the queer community: It’s no surprise to us that there are angry people who want us out of the picture. They always have. The heartbreaking and horrifying surprises now are things like how much of a platform they are given to espouse these beliefs. How today’s white supremacists no longer wear hoods to hide their faces; back then, they knew on some level that their views would be scorned, but now they fear no repercussion for screaming their hatred with their faces exposed. And perhaps worst and most familiar of all, how eerily quiet some of our neighbors, and even “friends and family,” have been when witnessing this uptick in terror.
It makes my chest heave to think that while I was maybe 6 or 7 the first time I realized that people hated me just for being who I was, my own 1-year-old daughter will probably learn that at an even younger age. If things don’t change, such knowledge might be part of her earliest memories.
But so too will memories of being just a baby, but showing up at vigils for Charlottesville in Jackson, Mississippi; and joining the throngs of peaceful activists at the Women’s March in Chicago; and being passed from loving arms to loving arms at Justice Everywhere meetings. As early as I can, with the help of so many wonderful people, I will wrap her in the sense that she is loved, and valued, and we are not alone. I will instill in her a deep faith that they will not get us all, they will never win, we will not let them.
The fear and hate is all too familiar. If my Bubbe were alive, though, I feel certain she would remind us that so too is survival. You and me, we’re still here.